Thomas J. Schaeper


On his book Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Author, Spy

Cover Interview of June 07, 2011

A close-up

Most historians who have had occasion to mention Bancroft have castigated him as a villainous traitor. Yes, he was a spy, but in my book I argue that he was not a traitor.

Edward Bancroft viewed his country as being the British Empire.  While he believed that Americans were justified in voicing grievances over matters of taxation and governance, he also believed that Britain and America both would be better served if they stayed united in the Empire.

Early responses to my book thus far indicate that another topic that catches attention involves Benjamin Franklin. Some authors have asserted that a man of Franklin’s genius must have known what his friend and assistant was up to; in other words, Franklin might very well have been a partner in Bancroft’s espionage.  I devote several pages to this topic, and I hope that I offer a solid rebuttal of this wild sort of speculation.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the book is looking at Bancroft’s entire life. He was born to an undistinguished family in Massachusetts and ran off to sea at the age of eighteen.  Shortly thereafter he ended up working as a physician on slave plantations in South America.  At the age of twenty-two he moved to London and quickly became an author (three books published when he was twenty-four), physician, scientist, businessman, member of the most prestigious scholarly societies, and one of the world’s top authorities on textile dyes.

Bancroft’s seven years as a spy were just an interlude in his long scholarly career.  He was not exactly a James Bond type.  But, of course, the fact that he did not look like a spy made him the perfect spy. First page of deciphered intelligence sent by Edward Bancroft to London in May 1777.  Courtesy of the British Library.

Through the nineteenth century his books on politics, natural science, and dyes were widely cited. Both the United States and Britain claimed him as one of their own, for he received entries in Britain’s prestigious Dictionary of National Biography as well as in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Only in 1889 did the world discover that Edward Bancroft had been a spy.  In that year an American researcher gained access to British diplomatic archives and discovered Bancroft’s hidden story.  Since that time American historians have, without exception, used words like immoral, double-dealing, greedy, and murderous to describe him.  My book takes a balanced view.  He certainly had his flaws, and I can’t explain all of his motivations.  But certainly Edward Bancroft was not a vile traitor.